Maria Roszak, Nun Who Helped Jews During the Holocaust, Dies at 110

Roszak, a member of the Righteous Among the Nations, was among nuns who opened their convent to future partisans of Vilna

Sister Cecylia Maria Roszak poses for a photo at her monastery in Krakow, Poland, on March 28, 2014.
Piotr Jantos/AFP

Maria Roszak, a Polish nun who belonged to a small convent that harbored 17 Jews during the Holocaust – including later partisan leader Abba Kovner – has died at 110.

Roszak, who was known as Sister Cecylia, died on November 16 at her convent in Krakow.

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In 1938 she was sent with other nuns to Vilnius to establish a small convent near Kolonia Wilenska (today Pavilnys, Lithuania) on the road leading to Wilejka (today Vileyka, Belarus). In 1941, after the German occupation began, the convent opened its doors to Jews.

Roszak may not have been the oldest person living in Poland – a 112-year-old woman deserves this honor. She also wasn’t the world’s oldest-living nun – a French nun died at 114. But she was apparently the oldest-living member of the 27,000 Righteous Among the Nations recognized by Yad Vashem for saving Jews during the Holocaust.

Roszak was born in March 1908 in a small village near Poznan; the region was then part of the German Empire. She went to a government school for industry and trade, and at 21 joined the Dominican Sisters’ convent in Krakow, where she later took her vows as a cloistered nun.

In 1941 her convent near Vilnius opened its doors to Jews.

“The quiet, isolated convent was in those days the sole spark of light that shined in the boundless darkness – the only place where brotherhood and a human heart could be found,” wrote Polish Jewish partisan leader Rozka Korczak-Marla in her 1946 Hebrew-language book “Flames in the Ashes.”

Anna Borkowska, the mother superior, opened the convent to a group of 17 Jewish youths, members of illegal Zionist underground movements. Among them were Abba Kovner and Haika Grossman, leaders of the Hashomer Hatzair movement in Vilnius, who both survived the Holocaust and immigrated to Israel.

Despite the huge differences between the devout Catholic nuns and secular, left-wing Jews, a deep bond formed between them. The Jewish pioneers found shelter within the convent’s walls and worked alongside the nuns in the fields, while continuing their underground activities. They called the mother superior ima – Hebrew for mother.

Kovner, who became a famous poet and was awarded the prestigious Israel Prize for literature, wrote in his poem “My Little Sister” about the nuns: “Nine little sisters in a gold frame, shining with inner light.”

At the convent, Kovner began to think about a ghetto uprising in Vilnius; at the site he wrote some of his most famous words: “Let us not go like sheep to the slaughter! / It is true that we are weak and defenseless, but resistance is the only response to the enemy! … Resist! To the last breath!”

The manifesto that Kovner read out to his friends on December 31, 1941, had been printed at the convent and was distributed in the ghetto. 

The group left the convent at the end of 1941 to form the underground in the Vilnius Ghetto. Borkowska failed in her attempt to get them to remain at the convent.

A few weeks after returning to the ghetto, Kovner was called to the community's gate. Borkowska was there and told him she was joining the Jews in the ghetto; “God is in the ghetto,” she said.

Kovner convinced her to leave, but when she asked what she could do to help the Jews in the ghetto, he said they needed weapons, according to the Yad Vashem website. Thus a nun who was committed to nonviolence smuggled the first hand grenades into the Vilnius Ghetto.

The Nazis arrested Borkowska in 1943 and closed the convent. Borkowska later asked to be released from her monastic vows and moved to Warsaw, but remained a deeply religious woman.

Roszak later returned to her convent in Krakow, where she played the church organ and eventually became mother superior.

Kovner asked Yad Vashem to recognize the nuns as Righteous Gentiles, and seven of them were awarded the title, including Roszak and Borkowska. Kovner visited them in Poland; when he presented Borkowska with the medal, Borkowska asked why she deserved the honor.

Kovner answered: “You are Anna of the angels.” He went on to explain: “During the days when angels hid their faces from us, this woman was for us Anna of the Angels. Not of angles that we invent in our hearts, but of angels that create our lives forever,” Yad Vashem says on its website. Borkowska died in 1988.

When asked about the secret of her long life, Roszak said: “You need to pray and learn languages.”

Along with her native Polish she spoke English, German, French and Latin. As she once said, “Life is beautiful, but too short.”